Movie Review: “Arbitrage” (Nicholas Jarecki, USA 2012)

Much of the publicity related to this film was about the Academy Award chances of star Richard Gere, who had been a significant star for over three decades without getting a nod from the Academy. It was rarely mentioned that the reason he never got a nomination is that he is barely even an actor, let alone a truly good actor, but the few critics who were willing to admit to Gere’s general acting limitations were still impressed with his performance in this film. Those testimonials were enough to make the film vaguely interesting to me, and it got just good enough reviews to be worth watching.

The film tells the story of Richard Miller, who is in every way the cliche rich businessman, complete with cocaine-snorting foreign artist girlfriend and secretly failing business. As with seemingly all such rich men in films, he ends up getting into a car accident with his girlfriend and tries to cover it up, claiming that it is to protect his business interests in order to help everyone connected to the business. He wraps his greed in a cocoon of selflessness that is absolutely the same as what we have seen from countless high-powered business executives throughout cinema.

However, the film’s big problem is that its point seems to be simply depicting this character, who is of course a stand-in for all business. The movie’s point is that big business is made up of a web of lies and deceit, and it really is that facile. It doesn’t try to make any points about the nature of greed, humanity, etc. It doesn’t try to make a more specific point about something in the recent economic and political situation. No, it just says, “Businessmen are selfish liars.” It’s an overdone, dull point that really did not need another film about it.

Jarecki also is so focused on his thriller narrative that he often forgets his point. He falls into the trap of thinking that he’s a storyteller rather than a filmmaker, and it shows in a film that lacks cohesion and quickly grows dull. Further, the narrative on which he focuses is such a trope that every beat of the film is predictable from reading a one-sentence summary. Especially if you’re going to make a thriller, that just doesn’t work.

The acting is essentially the saving grace of the film, as everyone in it is excellent. Richard Gere has always been a limited actor and this film doesn’t really stretch him, but he is still far more natural and believable than he has been in the vast majority of his parts, and does everything the film asks of him quite well. Susan Sarandon has a deceptively complex–albeit small–role as his wife and plays it perfectly, letting us know that the wife is more than Gere’s character realizes so that her revelation of knowledge about what’s going on at the end is more of a shock to him than it is to us. The ever-brilliant Tim Roth adopts a New York accent and almost comedically gorilla-like movement patterns in a strong turn as the detective investigating the girlfriend’s death, letting us know that he’s smarter than he appears at first glance and continuing with subtle touches to what could have been a bland, one note character throughout. Nate Parker is also noteworthy in his scenes, which reflect a humanity that the script does not give his otherwise well-troped character. He makes his character infinitely more interesting than Jarecki does, and he deserves a ton of credit for that.

Visually, Jarecki and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux have a television mentality. Much of the film is shot in very standard fashion, with colors and lighting exactly as one might find on the small screen. However, they do show a fascination with some rather unusual close-up shots in the first few minutes, the kind of shots that the showier type of television show uses to prove its edginess. It’s a dull film, visually, even if it is far from incompetent.

Overall, this film is quite poor. It’s not hellishly bad, but it’s strange that it got so much attention, which may largely have come from the revelation that Richard Gere could actually play one part correctly. It was a dull, cliched waste of time with nothing to say. In other words, this one was clearly not worth the two-hour investment.

Movie Review: “Fatal Attraction” (Adrian Lyne, USA 1987)

This film is a great example of what I mean when I talk about films needing to have a unifying point rather than being about narrative. It’s a film whose point, to the extent that it does have one, is the power and strength of a loving family. However, it is so busy following the twists and turns of its narrative that it just doesn’t make its point. And, of course, because it’s a film, its story comes across as an over-simplistic horror movie plot with thin characters and no real depth of any kind.

The plot is simple and seemingly interesting enough: A guy, Dan Gallagher, has an affair, but when he tries to break it off, the mistress, Alex Forrest, turns out to be a raving lunatic whose obsession with him will not allow the relationship to end.

Finding a point in this film is difficult, but the ultimate resolution of the plot, with Dan and his wife coming together to slay the monster that has stalked them for so long; the fact that it really is a horror movie about a danger to a marriage; and the final shot of the film being a photograph of Dan’s family suggests that Adrian Lyne made this film about family. The problem is that one could make a case for a number of other ideas being the “point” of the film, which means it didn’t really make one. One could say, for example, that the film is a “Men’s Rights Activist” screed against feminist advances, telling us the danger of women being sexually active and aggressive and how they can use their evil wiles to tempt otherwise good men and then control them with their obsessive behavior and pregnancies. I think Lyne may even have given us what little time that he does with Beth Gallagher, Dan’s wife, in order to rebut this point, since Beth’s purpose in the narrative is really just to exist as a part of Dan’s life and possible target for Alex, not to take part in any of the action and Beth is definitely the opposite of Alex in just about every conceivable way. That’s why I think the family angle is a better explanation of the point of the film.* However, the fact that one can make a credible case for a number of possible points tells you how poorly-focused this film is.

So, if the film is just telling a story without a point, surely a good enough story could still make it work, right? Well, movies aren’t long enough. I know I make this point a lot, but this film is a good example of what I’m saying. It runs one minute shy of two hours and is essentially a two-person film, and yet what we actually know about the characters is that Dan is a horny attorney and Alex is an obsessive monster. We get no hints about why Dan was so willing so easily to jump into bed with Alex, whether it was out of character for him to do so, whether he just enjoys the feeling of power he can get from such a relationship, etc. We get no deeper knowledge on Alex, someone who clearly suffers from some extreme psychological problems, than that she is inexplicably and dangerously obsessed with Dan after one night. We get no sense at all of the personality of any of the other characters and very little of Dan’s. All of the aspects of the plot that could be interesting if fully explored are left empty, leaving behind a shell in the shape of a horror film. And it’s not because Lyne and screenwriter James Dearden are incompetent—it’s just the nature of the medium.

Instead of trying to tell a fully-developed, well-rounded story, Lyne fits the story into a traditional horror movie narrative. Instead of a psychologically-damaged person, Alex is a monster whose evil is slowly being revealed throughout the film. She even has a typical horror movie monster “Is he dead?” jump scare moment at the end. In between, she tempts Dan into transgressing by having an affair with her, because, as Sitterson and Hadley tell us in The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA 2012), “They don’t transgress, they can’t be punished” and he does nothing but run from her, no different from a babysitter in a slasher film.

Visually, Lyne and cinematographer Howard Atherton simply don’t do much to bring any attention. It’s competent and there’s nothing that visually detracts from the film but there’s little that’s interesting, either. The use some low-key lighting to emphasize some of the more depressed parts of the narrative but mostly keep things pretty bright and simple. If anything, they seem to be intentionally going for a rather muted color palette, perhaps to make the film appear more “real” and “everyday” than the monster movie narrative might otherwise make it seem. It’s not terribly interesting, but it’s not bad.

The acting is rather odd in that it includes one amazing performance in the only role with any depth while a couple of other actors manage to be annoyingly unbelievable in flat roles that required almost nothing of them. Glenn Close is every bit as good as the reputation of her performance says, imbuing her monster with a depth and realism that actually makes the film’s narrative seem sillier than it otherwise would be through its sheer power. Meanwhile, Michael Douglas is his usual self: flat and dull but also filled with scenes where he seems to be saying, “I’m acting now” by talking more slowly. Dan Gallagher is not an interesting part and we have little clue about his personality, but Douglas’s unbelievability makes it even worse. And then there’s Anne Archer as Dan’s wife, Beth. She doesn’t have a ton of screen time and has no personality, and yet Archer still manages to be awful. She is so wooden and unbelievable that Douglas seems natural by comparison, which is really pretty amazing.

Maurice Jarre’s scores almost always deserve some attention, but this one really wasn’t very good. It was sometimes totally obtrusive and it felt like a score dated from about 1970. It’s a rare miss for one of the great film composers in history.

All told, it’s a rather enjoyable film but one that lacks any real depth. It’s a horror movie with a slightly unusual villain but otherwise nothing to give it any real attraction. Close’s performance is incredible and harrowing, but it’s also not enough to turn a rather lifeless film into anything special.

*Beth is admittedly an ineffectual character with no strength at all who even just seems to accept Dan’s infidelity pretty easily. If, as I suspect, Lyne was including more screen time with her just to rebut the argument that his film is an anti-feminist screed, it doesn’t work very well, and the film is still undoubtedly susceptible to that argument.

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad”-“Blood Money” (05.09, 2013)

Written by Peter Gould (Previous Episodes: “A No-Rough-Stuff Type Deal,” “Bit by a Dead Bee,” “Better Call Saul,” “Caballo sin Nombre,” “Kafkaesque,” “Half Measures,” “Problem Dog,” “Salud,” and “Hazard Pay”)

Directed by Bryan Cranston (Previous Episodes: “Seven Thirty-Seven” and “No Más.”

The final season of the greatest television series in history kicked off its second half yesterday with “Blood Money,” an episode that continued the basic format of the first half of the season: a hint of a strange future followed by Jesse dealing with the emotional fallout of recent events and Heisenberg dealing with the physical and professional (for lack of a better word) fallout.

Once again, we open in the future, with the behaired Walter White and his old car with a machine gun in the trunk. It was a tense, scoreless sequence as he drove up in front of what turned out to be the remnants of his old house, squeezed through a temporary chain link fence and walked inside, then took out the ricin capsule he had placed in the electrical socket long ago, and returned to his car. The quiet of the scene, the added tension of knowing that there is a machine gun in the trunk (which he opened twice), and its air of mystery gave it a tension that it could easily lack.

This scene gave us some further clues about Heisenberg’s future. The house has been surrounded by a fence but has been empty long enough for vandals to get inside and spray paint, including one who has painted “Heisenberg” in bold, yellow letters across one wall. It has been emptied out completely (even the kitchen island was missing) and has become a run-down, dilapidated shell of what it once was. And then, Walt/Heisenberg’s former neighbor, Carol, sees him, and is utterly terrified, telling us that Heisenberg’s identity is even known to those in the area who are not part of the business or law enforcement. We already knew that he was not going to be able to keep the secret once Hank found out (Hank is too smart and tenacious to let that happen.), but now we know that his identity has become public knowledge.

Throughout the rest of the episode, we are moving back and forth between two plot threads: Heisenberg and Hank dealing with the consequences of Hank’s discovery last episode in one thread and Jesse still reeling from the consequences of his actions in the other.

Jesse’s plot thread, while it gives Aaron Paul a good showcase for a performance that was long overshadowed by Bryan Cranston’s lead, has grown rather stale at this point. We’re watching Jesse wallow in self-pity and remorse, seeking a way to rid himself of the title “blood money.” He turns to Saul for help, but Saul runs to Heisenberg, unwilling to cross his dangerous top client, and so Jesse finally, in desperation, turns to literally throwing the money at houses in a poor neighborhood. In isolation, it’s not a bad sequence of events for showing Jesse’s despair, but at this point we’ve basically spent the last year and a half just watching Jesse go through these same feelings of despondency, with only a brief interlude of cogency. It’s still sad, but it’s starting to wear, at least for me.

Meanwhile, in a surprise for me, it turns out that Walt was actually telling the truth and is out of the business. He has been out for a month, having turned the operation over, and even refuses entreaties from Lydia to rejoin the business as its quality control fails without him. He and Skyler are running the car wash, successfully, and considering adding a new car wash in order to launder the money more quickly. Even their relationship appears to be in a much better place than it has been since the first season, as they are able to discuss business dealings without issue and Walt can tell her who Lydia is and Skyler’s reaction is to help get rid of her.

However, of course the centerpiece of the episode is what the hell Hank does when he comes out of that bathroom. In a really nice sequence that used some unusual auditory and visual tricks that emphasized what a weird situation this was for Hank, he walks out, hides the book in Marie’s purse, and makes up a plausible excuse about feeling ill–while looking like he’s considering just punching Walt in the face–before taking his wife away from the man he now knows to be the most dangerous meth cook he’s ever encountered. It was a bit surprising to me that he decided not to tell anyone at work, since even though Hank has always been a lone wolf of an investigator, he’s probably now rendered the book, which is the only evidence he has, inadmissible in court and he’s now opened himself up to an attack from Heisenberg that would end the entire investigation. However, it wasn’t really out of character for the bulldog that is Hank Schrader to decide to do his own investigating, hide it from everyone until he’s certain, and figure everything out on his own while not even considering the danger in which he has placed himself.

The biggest surprise; however, was that the Hank/Walt confrontation happened so quickly. It’s an interesting confrontation, especially considering that it begins with Hank so predictably punching Walt in the face. Walt is clearly confused by the interaction, switching back and forth between his persona as Walt and his persona as Heisenberg as he attempts verbally to fight off his brother in law. However, it ends with a standoff, as Walt suddenly tells both Hank and the audience that his cancer is back. There were hints for us earlier, most notably his vomiting earlier in this episode that so clearly harkened back both to Gus Fring’s making himself vomit in Mexico and the early days of the series when Walt’s chemo caused him to spend so much time in that bathroom and his calling Saul during what appeared to be a chemotherapy treatment, but this is apparently the first Hank knows about it. It says a lot about Hank, though, that his reaction is, “Good. Rot, you son of a bitch.” When he receives not sympathy, Walt turns back into Heisenberg, saying that he will not survive to spend time in prison and finally threatening Hank, warning him to “tread lightly.” Hank stares back at him, and there is simply no resolution at this point, and it’s difficult to see where this particular confrontation is going.

Visually, Bryan Cranston does by far his best work in the show’s history here. His earlier episodes were a bit overly showy, loaded with odd camera angles and weird color choices that seemed to be there to draw attention to the director rather than advance the plot, but this time he seems perfectly in line with the show’s normal visual tone, and his unusual touches–like the sequence of Hank walking out of the bathroom–are perfectly suited to the show.

Overall, this episode was a strong opening to the end of the series. I feel a little bored with Jesse’s antics at this point, but I trust Vince Gilligan and company to take it someplace interesting.

Notes:

  • Remember when Mike said that Lydia was dangerous and “deserved to die as much as any man [he’d] ever met?” Walt clearly still does not think so.
  • 68% is pretty far to fall in a month of his being out. I would guess he left the chemistry in the hands of Todd, but he seemed to be very studious of the master Heisenberg before, so it seems strange that he would have let the standards fall so far.
  • I still have no clue why he would need the machine gun, and feeling like he needed the ricin is even weirder. It has to be some sort of confrontation with Lydia and her associates, because nothing else makes sense, but why on earth did he end up having to come back for that instead of just living out his days wherever the disappearer sent him?
  • There is a lot of plot to get through in the last seven episodes, especially since one would expect at least one full episode dedicated to what happens after the future openings we’ve seen. My guess is that he is able to buy enough time from Hank to get to use the disappearer but doesn’t kill Hank, leaving the case hanging over Walt as he escapes. However, Lydia is unhappy about the quality she is getting and forces Jesse into the business. Walt somehow finds out about Jesse’s position and goes back to save Jesse, hoping that it will be a final act of redemption. That’s my best try for now.